The Senate has belatedly begun exercising its constitutional role to advise and consent on issues of major national importance, specifically whether President Bush should be authorized to go to war against Iraq.
The Foreign Relations Committee held hearings two weeks ago and invited an array of foreign policy experts to give their views on three key questions: How serious is the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's regime? How large a military force will be required to oust him if the president decides to use force? What is the potential cost and how long will U.S. troops be required to stay in Iraq?
These questions need to be addressed before Washington decides to launch a war in the Persian Gulf. Had similar ones been addressed in 1965, on the eve of the Vietnam War, that conflict might have been fought differently by the U.S. military.
George Bush, who called for "regime change" in Baghdad seven months ago, restates that goal forcefully in his speeches and press statements. Although he says he has no fixed timetable for an invasion, he directed the Pentagon to formulate on an urgent basis an operational roadmap for achieving that objective if non-military measures fail to oust the Iraqi dictatorship. Many observers think an invasion will commence early in 2003.
The Senate's Foreign Relations Committee is headed by two knowledgeable and cautious members, Democrat Joseph Biden of Delaware, its chairman, and Republican Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana. They are overseeing this national debate on how, and when, the United States should go to war in the Persian Gulf for a second time in twelve years..
They invited the Bush administration to send officials to testify, but the White House declined, saying it would do so later when its planning is completed. Washington press leaks suggest the Pentagon is so deeply divided on the question that the administration is not ready to present its plan to the senators.
The non-government experts who testified before the Biden-Lugar committee differed significantly over the size, cost, and timing of an invasion.
Estimates ranged up to five years. But two related questions also were posed: How would he acquire a delivery capability to use such weapons against the United States? And, could he be deterred from using them against his neighbors, as well as this country? The responses suggested
that Iraq will have mass destruction weapons within a year or two, that its leadership will then intimidate Arab neighbors and Israel. The consensus was that containment through economic and military sanctions will not be a deterrent.
The experts agreed Iraq would be defeated but disagreed on how large a force would be required, how long it would take, and whether any bases would be needed. Most thought Iraq's armed forces are considerably weaker than at the time of the 1991 Gulf War. But the size and composition of the U.S. force now needed was disputed between "hawks," who think Iraq can be defeated quickly by a massive air assault plus limited ground forces, and the cautious experts who favor an invading force of perhaps 250,000, including air and naval power. Proponents of relying primarily on air power claim its size could be between 80-100,000.
The dispute over force requirements is at the heart of the current Pentagon delay in producing a war plan that Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld can formally lay before the president, and eventually take to Congress..
On the issue of bases, Anthony Cordesman, an expert on Middle East warfare and former Pentagon official, recalled for the senators that during the Gulf War every single air field in Saudi Arabia was used in order to carry out the air war against Iraq. Saudi Arabia currently is refusing to permit the Pentagon to use its territory for an attack on Iraq. Jordan's King Abdullah told President Bush he would not support an attack on Iraq. Turkey also voices grave doubts about using its air bases, fearing the effects of war on its Kurdish population.
Many of these experts predicted that the United States would need to keep troops in Iraq for perhaps ten years in order to maintain order and help a new government to establish itself. One recalled that when President Clinton sent troops to Bosnia in 1996, he said they would be withdrawn in one year. They remain there nearly seven years later.
Estimates on the financial costs of waging war in Iraq range up to $90 billion, with another $16 billion per year to rebuild the country and install a democratic government. During the Gulf War, our allies--including Japan, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait--paid for about 80 percent of the costs. In a new war with Iraq, it was pointed out, the United States might have to pay the entire bill itself.
The reality is that although the president directed the Pentagon to develop a war plan that inevitably will be very costly, there is no evidence that any ally except Britain will join with us.
As Senator Biden emphasized to Tim Russert, on NBC's "Meet the Press" August 4, the president must present a credible case to the American people and our allies that war is the only alternative to stop Saddam Hussein from endangering world peace. Mr. Bush had not made that case, he said, and Congress has a constitutional duty to ask tough questions before a decision is made about going to war. Still, he thought the president could make a strong case for war.
I remain puzzled over why George Bush so forcefully committed himself and the United States to the goal that Saddam Hussein must be overthrown by force, apparently regardless of the costs and whether or not any European or Middle East ally joins us.
Some suggest that the president intends to create such political turmoil in Baghdad that a CIA-sponsored coup will topple Saddam Hussein, with minimal use of U.S. force. Others think he uses the threat of invasion to persuade Iraq's regime to accept the return of arms inspectors who would have full freedom to inspect whatever sites they wished, in accordance with a 1991 agreement on ending the Gulf War.
In either case, however, the credibility of the United States, and of Mr. Bush personally, rests on his determination to follow through with an invasion if Iraq refuses to budge. The situation is similar to one that President Lyndon Johnson found in 1964 when he sternly warned North Vietnam that he would launch a war if it did not stop its war on South Vietnam. Johnson was obliged to deliver on this threat or be seen as a "paper tiger" when Hanoi refused.
Hopefully, this new crisis will be resolved before George Bush is forced into a new war in the Persian Gulf, one that could trigger a much larger conflict in the Middle East than the public or Congress may be prepared to support.
File last modified on Thursday, 13-AUG-2004 07:00 PM EST